Jessica Klimkait: "This is the road and path I want to take"

Canadian judoka Jessica Klimkait has won three Grand Slams in total and is now preparing to secure a slot for Tokyo 2020
Canadian judoka Jessica Klimkait has won three Grand Slams in total and is now preparing to secure a slot for Tokyo 2020

World no 1 Canadian judoka Klimkait and World no 2 Christa Deguchi to fight off for -57kg Olympic spot 

Fresh from her gold-winning moment at the Grand Slam in Budapest, Hungary last October, Canadian judoka Jessica Klimkait has never been surer about her place in judo. After beating Helene Receveau of France in the finals, not only did she claim top spot on the podium but Klimkait rose to world no 1 in the -57kg category - a dream that only few have attained.

“Getting the number one spot is a sort of a confirmation that I'm going in the right direction,” the 23-year-old athlete told Tokyo 2020.

“It’s a reward for my hard work. But it's nowhere near over. So it's a little bit of a motivation to try to stay there.”

Klimkait’s win came at such a significant time, as the Grand Slam event was the first judo competition to take place after the sport went into hiatus due to COVID-19. That’s why, for the 23-year-old judoka, this victory had a special meaning after dealing with training restrictions and returning from a knee injury earlier in the year. On the day of the competition, she felt ready.

“Winning was obviously really nice, but it was more in the fashion in which I won, where I felt so dominant throughout the day. And that obviously gave me like a lot of confidence," she said.

“It really showed me that even with the restrictions that we have here in Canada, I'm still able to improve and work on things and really work with what we have, with the resources that we have. So that was really nice.”

While this is Klimkait’s third Grand Slam victory after Osaka in November 2018 and Dusseldorf in February 2020, winning Budapest is a step towards many other goals including the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

"There's still lots of things that have to be done in terms of results for me. And I still want a world championship medal. I want to go to the Olympic Games. I want to get a medal there.”

Rivalry with Deguchi

As World no 1, Klimkait has actually swapped positions with fellow teammate Christa Deguchi (now world no 2 at -57kg.) who is also aiming to compete at Tokyo 2020 in the same weight category.

There is only one spot available for the -57kg competition, so Klimkait and Deguchi need to battle each other out to represent Canada at the Games.

According to Team Canada's assistant national coach Sasha Mehmedovic, there will be a series of fights between the two judokas to determine who gets to go to Tokyo next year.

“In our Canadian system if two players are ranked in the top 8 in the Olympic ranking then a fight-off will determine who will represent Canada at the Olympics. The fight-off is the best 2 out of 3. The date of the fight-off is still to be determined,” he said.

Klimkait and Deguchi’s rivalry has attracted a lot of interest in the local media as both are formidable contenders who represent different judo styles.

"Jessica and Christa are very different but determined athletes. Each has their own strengths which makes them so unique in their category. Christa comes from a very classical Japanese judo background and Jessica comes from an adaptive Canadian background," Mehmedovic added.

Jessica Klimkait and Christa Deguchi need to face each other off in a series of fights to determine who gets the Olympic spot.
Jessica Klimkait and Christa Deguchi need to face each other off in a series of fights to determine who gets the Olympic spot.
Photo by Rafal Burza

It's not the first time that the two have faced off against each other - as they had already competed against each other five times in the past (2018 Panamerican semi championships, 2018 Grand Prix Hohhot, 2018 Grand Prix Zagreb, 2019 Grand Slam Paris and 2019 Grand Prix finals). Even though Deguchi has won in each instance, in reality it has always been a close fight.

What's different now that could give Klimkait an edge is her new-found confidence after beating so many other top judokas in the world this year and gaining experience in different fighting styles which may be crucial in her future match with Deguchi.

"At the beginning, when we first competed with each other the first couple of times, she was completely foreign to me as as I was to her. So you know, it was just about learning how she fights, how she feels," the Ontario native said.

"Every single time I stepped on the mat with her, it was the same sort of process, just learning more and more and sort of chipping away at what can work for me against her."

And regardless of how the media has been pitting them against each other, Klimkait is not about to have the rivalry get in the way of her dream of securing a spot at the Games.

"I don't think if you ask the both of us two years ago, I don't think we would have said we would be in this position. So it's definitely put like a big spotlight on me against her. We're just pretty relatively normal girls going for the same the same thing."

Jessica Klimkait: "The Olympic Games will bring the world together"

Eyeing -57kg and nothing else

Deguchi summed up what's at stake when Tokyo 2020 spoke to her back in August: "The -57kg category is one of the toughest divisions in judo... It’s the most competitive category in women’s judo.”

As Deguchi had been strong in the category, Klimkait said there were some suggestions from her team in the past to move to the -63kg weight class.

"I don't doubt that I could be a good -63kg player, I faced some of those girls and I know I'm like athletically pretty good and strong and my judo is very quick."

But Klimkait remains adamant that she'll stay in the -57kg weight class.

"I've put so much work every single day to just get to this number one spot. I've worked so hard to get here in fifty seven kilos and you know, being consistent at a tournament, every single tournament is like super rewarding and I just I would never give that up."

And it's this conviction that Klimkait may build on in her bid for Tokyo 2020 next year.

"Obviously the Olympics is the biggest goal of any athlete's life, but I have to be happy with myself during the journey. For me, my heart is in -57. It's the division I want to be in. And this is like the road and the path I want to take."

I want to go to the Olympic Games. I want to get a medal there.

For the love of the sport

From mimicking her father and brother's judo movements at age four, to winning championships at age 16 and becoming world no 1, Klimkait surely has come a long way.

"It's rewarding once you achieve something or you get something right, and [judo] has taught me so much about like grit and resilience and it's like shaped my personality and my character."

Over the years, Klimkait has built up her own style of judo - she's quick, decisive and spontaneous - all of which she's going to bank on every time she is on the mat.

"Before going into tournaments, I'm never thinking about results and that I have to win. I'm always trying to think, like, 'how can I do the best possible judo?'. I just want to walk away from the competition, being proud of the kind of judo and techniques that I've done and things like that."

She says the love for the sport is what drives her to continue moving forward. In fact, while her friends were pursuing normal careers, judo is the only thing she sees herself doing.

"I knew that I was going to keep doing judo and I knew I wanted to pursue that. And I've sort of accepted that and I'm beyond happy with that choice today. But that was definitely something I struggled with."

While her friends are advancing in their chosen careers, Klimkait is content with her accomplishments in judo and values her experience in the sport more than anything.

"On contrast, I know I'm experiencing things that they also will never experience."

"I'm grateful for the sacrifices because it's just given me so many experiences at such a young age, and I'm really thankful for it. The sacrifices are difficult but I would say, they're definitely worth it."

The match and journey to Tokyo 2020

Now that Tokyo 2020 is within her reach, Klimkait is in Montreal to focus on her training for the next Judo masters (Qatar 11-13 January), her fight-off with Deguchi and eventually the Games.

"[What's important is to have] good training and being in a good mindset, being healthy, managing injuries, things like that, and really just slowly working on the things that I'm already doing well, but sort of slowly adding to a repertoire to broaden what I'm capable of."

But for Klimkait, representing Canada in what may be her first Olympic Games is everything.

"In terms of the Olympics, obviously if I go, I have very high expectations for myself. I've proven myself time and time again on an international stage. And I know it's possible for me to perform well there if I'm healthy and in the right mindset," she said.

As judo is set to return to the Olympic programme at the Nippon Budokan - which has become the spiritual home of martial arts in Japan - Klimkait will be honoured to compete in the same venue where judo had been first introduced to the world 57 years ago.

"I think it'll just be a really cool experience, it's kind of like judo coming full circle and ending up back there. That building holds a lot of history. There's a different sort of vibration once you enter that building, just knowing the history of it. So I think it's just going to be a really cool experience to try to hold the event there."

And Klimkait knows how special the Tokyo 2020 Games will be not only for athletes like her but for the rest of the world.

"I'm just looking forward to seeing [how] the Olympics will be, if held, one of the biggest events held since the pandemic started. And I think it will just show like a great sense of community worldwide, bringing the world together. I think that would be really nice and exciting to see. And I think the athletes, we deserve something like that [because] we've sacrificed so much."

If we get to see Klimkait's quick and decisive brand of judo at the Nippon Budokan next year, she will represent how the sport has evolved when it was first introduced globally from being a male-dominated sport to one that continues to empower women.

The women's -57kg elimination rounds will commence on 26 July 2021.